What Federal Laws Cover Sexual Harassment?

Sexual harassment is a type of sex discrimination, which is prohibited under federal law. Specifically, Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 gives employees the right to work free from discrimination based on many protected factors, including sex and gender. This law applies to all employers across the U.S. with 15 or more employees, compared to California anti-discrimination laws that apply to employers with five or more employees.

If you think you endured unlawful sexual harassment at work in California, you might have important rights under the law. You should discuss your situation with a workplace sexual harassment lawyer right away.

Expanding “Sex” Under Title VII

While some states expressly prohibited discrimination and harassment based on sexual orientation or gender identity, Title VII only protected against discrimination and harassment based on sex and gender. However, in June of 2020, the Supreme Court of the United States (SCOTUS) ruled that “sex” in Title VII should be interpreted to also protect employees based on sexual orientation and gender identity/expression. The case of Bostock v. Clayton County, Georgia, effectively expanded sexual harassment to include harassment based on the extended protected characteristics, as well.

How the Law Works to Protect Employees

Title VII does not specifically make it illegal for one person to harass another in a work environment. Instead, the law prohibits employers from allowing harassment or not taking proper action to stop the harassment once they have notice. This means that the liability falls on the shoulders of an employer and not on the individual harasser. When you file a claim for sexual harassment, you are filing it against your employer.

Employer liability immediately kicks in if someone with authority over your job engages in quid pro quo harassment. This happens when the authority figure makes engaging in sexual conduct a condition of your job, whether threatening termination or offering benefits.

Outside of quid pro quo harassment, if the harassment is creating a hostile work environment, you need to notify your employer about what is happening. Liability only kicks in if your employer fails to properly stop the hostile work environment.

The law also protects an employee’s right to complain of sexual harassment without fear of retaliation. This means that you should be able to notify your employer of potential sexual harassment without worrying about facing an adverse employment action or other circumstances.

What Happens if You Have a Claim Under Federal law?

Because Title VII is a federal law, you will need to file a claim under this law with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC), which is a federal agency. This is contrasted with filing a complaint with the California Department of Fair Employment and Housing (DFEH) if you are enforcing your rights under state law.

You should always consult with an attorney before filing to ensure that you take the legal route that is best suited for your situation. If your employer is liable for sexual harassment, you can seek damages, including lost income and compensation for emotional distress.

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